Acquiring a taste for all-things Hoi An

by Vo Le Hong

Life's a sea breeze: Open air dining at the Terrace Cafe. — VNS Photos Sunny Rose

One early morning, I woke up to birds singing, and to my surprise, realised that I was a guest at the Palm Garden Resort in Hoi An. I had almost forgotten where I was as this peaceful oasis can lull you into a nostalgic reverie.

From my room’s balcony, I could see a lush tropical garden under the bright sunshine. The grey roofs of houses and bungalows loomed in the distance, intermingling with palm trees and other plants along a 220-metre stretch of the famous Cua Dai Beach, just minutes outside the UNESCO world heritage site of Hoi An.

The five-hectare resort is only 25 minutes by car from Da Nang International Airport.

Local favourite: Cao lau is made from locally sourced rice and water from an ancient Cham well in Hoi An.

As I later walked to the beach, my feet touched the grass that was still wet with dew. The beautiful open sea appeared and I felt a rush of nostalgia as the entire scene evoked vague images from my past. Even now, the feeling lingers.

After running along the damp sandy beach, I swam in the tender waves. The sunshine was a welcome addition, particularly after the bout of stormy days that had left a number of nearby provinces with heavy floods.

Luckily, the beach was private. During my days there, there were only a few couples and contestants from the Miss Earth 2010 contest, which Viet Nam had hosted.

Like fairies, they came to Hoi An to plant a new garden in their effort to protect Mother Earth.

Breakfast was just as delightful. The resort’s Terrace Cafe offers many choices, including western food and local specialties.

For dinner, I ordered Vietnamese dishes canh mong toi voi tom (vegetables with shrimp soup (VND75,660 or US$4.5), special Palm Garden fried rice (VND09,000 or $5.5), dau phu chien don (deep fried tofu) (VND82 or $4); thit heo luoc cuon banh trang voi rau que (rice paper covered with boiled pork and Hoi An’s special noodles (known as White Roses) (VND,50 or-$5.5).

The dishes were wonderfully, unforgettably delicious, especially the Palm Garden fried rice with the natural green colours from herbs, vegetables, and mustard.

For breakfast I tried cao lau noodles, one of the famous specialties of Hoi An besides mi Quang (bright yellow noodles with broth).

The best cao lau is cooked in water sourced from Hoi An and surrounding areas, including Cam Khe where the remains of the old square wells dug by the Cham hundreds of years ago exist. The water, which is also used for drinking and cooking, has a unique flavor.

The rice that’s used in cao lau is neither freshly harvested nor too aged. It is first washed and soaked in Hoi An’s well water and then placed in a solution made of lye, the liquid obtained after leaching wood ashes.

Ngoc Trung, chef of the Terrace Restaurant, said other plants besides rice can be used to make the lye solution.

After soaking the rice in the solution, the rice is ground into a thick paste and poured into cotton bags to drain the excess water.

The doughy paste is briefly steamed, thinly sliced and steamed again. The noodles are then left in the open air to dry before being blanched briefly in hot water for cooking.

Cao lau noodles have more texture than regular rice noodles, which are more tart.

Placed on the top of a big bowl of cao lau is xa xiu, a Chinese barbecued pork dish.

The cao lau dish, whose broth is made of pork’s bones, dried shrimp and dried squid, was quite delicious.

Served on the side were uncooked bean sprouts, roasted peanuts, rice crackers, mint and Vietnamese coriander.

“I feel proud to introduce tourists to the food of my homeland. Our seafood is from the Cua Dai sea, and the livestock is our produce. Herbs grown in Hoi An have a more pungent taste than others elsewhere,” Trung, the restaurant’s chef, said.

For me, the tan colour of the cao lau reflects the hues of Hoi An – its historic homes and buildings that retain the colour of a near-black wood and an ochre patina.

The colours, textures and landscapes all left me with a deep sense of mystery about the town’s history. All in all, it was fitting reminder of my first visit to Hoi An. — VNS

Terrace Cafe & Restaurant

Address: Palm Garden Resort

Lac Long Quan Street, Cua Dai Beach, Hoi An City, Quang Nam Province

Tel: (84.510) 3927927

Opening hours: 6:30am to 10:30pm

Comment: Fine traditional food in a beautiful setting

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